New Hampshire Country Dance Fiddle Tunes Website

Choosing Chords for Fiddle Tunes

Developing a Set of Chords for a Tune: An Example

Here we look at the process of choosing chords to fit a fiddle tune. Using a march from Ralph Page I illustrate the steps I went through to develop a satisfactory accompaniment.
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Introductory Comments

On the previous pages we looked at the issue of whether there is a single correct chord choice, as I believed (as do many others) when I first started accompanying fiddle tunes, or whether there might be multiple possible valid chord progressions for a set of music. Clearly the latter choice is correct. The chords an accompanist plays depend on a number of factors.

  • The musicians may be trying to create a certain mood or to affect the dancers in a particular way. A tune can be played with chords that blend in and let the melody musicians stand out. Look back at the previous page where I compare several ways of chording each of two different tunes.

  • Chord choices also vary over time and from place to place and from one tradition to another; again look back at the previous page for a few examples.

Now I want to present an interesting example of choosing chords to fit a tune that I was involved with a couple years ago.

The Example: Gone A Rovin'

A March from Ralph Page

Ralph Page was a square dance caller from New Hampshire who called from the late 1930s into the 1980s. He published a quarterly to monthly journal of music, dance, cooking, humor and more called Northern Junket. He was also a composer of tunes, and although not prolific, most of his tunes make good to excellent dance tunes. They include Rollstone Mountain, McQuillen's Squeezebox and Year-End Two-Step. Many were published in Northern Junket and in various of his books. Generally he provides the melody but not chords (although in some cases chords were provided that came from others).

For several years Elaine Malkin has taught one of his less known marches, Gone A Rovin', in her classes at Maine Fiddle Camp. It was published in Northern Junket, Volume 13, Number 11, Page 26 (June, 1981). I converted this to abc notation; the resulting transcription is shown below.

  • To hear the tune: Just click on the tune to play it. Playback starts from wherever you click; you can stop playback by clicking on the tune again, someplace away from any notes (e.g. near the title).

It's a really nice tune, and I've always wondered why it's not played more frequently. Perhaps it's because it was one of his later tunes and didn’t make it into any of his books. As a piano player I can say that coming up with chords that fit the tune and that really compliment the melody is not a trivial undertaking.

I tried to come up with an accompaniment but never quite felt like my chords did justice to the tune. It was hard to find either a recording of the tune or a transcription to use for comparison until I realized that Randy Miller (fiddler and piano player from western New Hampshire, and the recipient of the 2021 NH Governor’s Arts Award for Folk Heritage) had included the tune in his book The Fiddler's Throne (Alstead, NH, Fiddlecase Books, 2004). With permission I reprint his chords (and later another version of the chords) below.

Click on the tune to hear the melody with a very basic accompaniment using Randy's chords.

Now I should start by saying I was very much predisposed to like these chords. Randy is an excellent piano accompanist and the first person i think of when I need advice about chords. He played for many of the best dances I attended in my early years of dancing, and his accompaniment on the three recordings he did with Rodney Miller is first class. Many times I've listened to one of those recordings and realized they were the source for one or another aspect of my own accompaniment style. But I tried it, and although I liked some of it there were parts I was less sure I liked, and it didn't quite give the feel I'd expect for a Ralph Page tune.

I wasn't entirely happy with Randy's chords but they were better than my previous attempts so I used them as a starting point and tried to develop a new set of chords. I kept many of the features of Randy's chords but made some changes. Here are the chords I ended up with; once again you can click on them to play them. Listen for the changes, indicated by red type.

I kept much of Randy's chord arrangement, but switched a few places between major and minor, and simplified some parts.

At this point I thought about the fact that I first came to like the tune when Elaine Malkin's class at Maine Fiddle Camp played it at a Camper Concert. I discovered that I had recorded the performance, and that it was accompanied, most likely by Gail Lipfert. I listened to the recording, and although it was a fairly basic accompaniment (appropriate for a class performance), it was much more to my taste. So I did my best to figure out the chords she was playing. (I have so far been unable to reach Elaine to verify who was playing accompaniment or the correctness of my chord identification.) Here's what I came up with.

Although this set was in no way based on my chords I've highlighted the changes. All minor chords in my chord set are major here, and there are a few other differences. This chord progression seemed much more the sort that I'd expect from a Ralph Page tune — perhaps meaning that it sounded much more like the sort of accompaniment we were used to hearing in New Hampshire for about sixty years from Bob McQuillen who played piano for Ralph Page and many other New Hampshire callers.

In any case I wondered what Randy might think of it as we'd already corresponded about his set of chords. So I sent it to him this chord set, and got a thoughtful email back from him with a set of chords based on those from Elaine and Gail. He thought the above chords fit well, although he made a couple changes, including holding off on some chord changes for a measure. He came up with the following:

As you can see, he delayed both the switch to a C chord and the switch back to a G chord by a measure in the middle of the phrase of lines 1, 2 and 4. Randy said he didn't hear the A7 in the A part and switched it back to a G (as he had it in his original chords), and he restored the circle of fifths at the end of the B part from his original chords.

I tried Randy's chords and I liked them very much. There was only one change I made. I do hear the A7 chord in the A part, so I came up with the following chords:

It's not surprising that I hear it with the A7 and Randy doesn't. The use of a major II chord is very characteristic of the playing of Maine accompanists. Otto Soper, who played piano for dances for many years in his home town of Orland and in many dance halls in surrounding areas, made considerable use of the major II chord. To me it gives his playing a large and very bright cheerful sound. Doug Protsik learned from Otto and continues to make use of the major II chord to good effect. Although I'm from New Hampshire I used to dance in Maine quite frequently, and have attended Maine Fiddle Camp since the beginning in 1994, and I have come to use the major II chord in a similar fashion. I find that it's rarely used by New Hampshire accompanists who don't have a Maine influence, so one might expect Randy to be less likely to use it.

So here we have several sets of chords illustrating how the accompaniment for a tune might develop as different people exert their influences. The changes illustrate the role of generational changes, regional differences and the effects of individual differences in taste that go beyond generational and regional effects. The end result is what I would consider a very nice accompaniment for the tune.